To leave or not to leave: that is the question

An introduction to the ethics of space exploration and colonisation

Featured image description: A screencap of a scene from film The Martian, featuring some human pod-like structures on a rusted, arid landscape.

Featured image credit: 20th Century Fox

To be or not to be, that is the question:

whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them.

The opening to Hamlet’s soliloquy, here, can be loosely interpreted in the modern context of a dilemma the very, outrageously rich seem to face, when contemplating the idea of jumping ship and trying their luck in the New Worlds of outer space. Forget planet Earth, will the universe, someday, be our oyster? Should it be? Space ethics is the area of philosophy that tries to answer these questions.

Since Galileo, and even before then, humans have enjoyed a correspondence of sorts with outer space. We stare up at the void, and the void stares back. Until recent years, however, stargazing was just about all we could do as a civilisation. This was uncomplicated, and space ethics as a field remained a discussion of hypotheticals. As technology evolved,  humans have begun to slowly, steadily transform some of these hypotheticals into realities. This brings relevancy to the questions raised within space ethics, as their answers inform decision-making when it comes to space exploration, and, perhaps someday, settlement.

This field is by no means composed of binaries. There is no requirement to take a hard-line view of either “we are obliged to travel into space and create human settlements; we are entitled to mine as we please,” or “it is a moral crime to send anything manmade, even a signal, beyond Earth’s atmosphere”. Both positions can be considered ridiculous, though the former is held by some. Space ethics is required to tease out the intricacies of what human impact should be beyond our own Earth: on the surrounding cosmos and the ever-expanding sphere of our influence. This article aims to highlight and discuss some of the main questions in space ethics, especially within the context of current and proposed exploration events.

Space ethics shares ground both with business ethics and astrobiology, as well as numerous fields in between. The most pertinent questions, currently, can be distilled to be:

1. “Is it ethical to send humans on a one-way trip into space? And if so, is it right to build a settlement on a planet other than Earth?”

2. “Can anyone ‘own’ places in outer space? (Must space be subject to similar laws to those we have imposed upon our own Earth?”)

Any question on space ethics warrants essays and correspondence solely concerning itself. In light of this, this essay will primarily explore the broader principles which unite them.

The question of eventually sending humans into space on a one-way trip is ultimately a decision on which principle dominates: the preservation of human species versus the preservation of extra-terrestrial worlds as they have been for millennia, sans human interference. The prioritisation hinges on what moral value one believes humans to have, when contested with other living things, and even inanimate objects. This is broadly considered to be the foundation of environmental ethics; the principal viewpoints are generally classified as follows:

  • Anthropocentrism: The view that only humans have moral value, and therefore the needs (and even whims) of humans can be placed above those of all other things and beings. If one took this view, then this would justify actions not only of space exploration, but also of space mining and settling, even if there is life already present on the host planet. This would make space colonisation permissible, regardless of the resource cost back on earth. This also would justify the Musk-esque(ref) view that eventually, earth will no longer be habitable for humans — because some societies will have entirely exhausted it — and that the step would then be to live in outer space. It is important to note that anthropocentrism usually is not manifested in such an extreme manner. People tend to modify the view to things such as “Zoocentrism” and “Ecocentrism” which temper anthropocentric views with pragmatic points about the place of humanity in the wider context of nature.
  • Zoocentrism: The view that anything alive and conscious has higher moral standing than anything that is not alive, or plantlike. This puts humans at parity with animals, and both above moon rocks and martian soil. This view, on earth, is part of the justification for vegetarian- and veganism, but is generally modified in cases where animal activity poses human threat to life. In practice, this is expressed as: human needs are greater than animal needs, but animal needs are more important than human non-needs. In the context of space exploration, this would suggest that it’s morally fine to settle on another planet, provided that life, if at all present, is of lower complexity than the animals we see on Earth.
  • Ecocentrism: The view that all life must be respected, regardless of complexity or sentience. Under this regime, it would be permissible to colonise another planet if and only if no life at all was detected. If life was found, even microbial life, it would take moral precedence over the needs of humanity extending beyond earth.
  • Preservationism: The view that things, as they are, have intrinsic moral value and therefore it is immoral to change them. This would forbid making changes to the character of anything in space, ergo prohibiting the construction of human habitats on another planet.

So what view is the right one to take? The simple (and unsatisfying) answer is that it depends on the context. Martyn Fogg (1995) introduces his article with the context of the solar system having a finite lifetime, therefore this eventuality is one that must be considered. The author finds this context weak because it presupposes too much: firstly, that human civilisation will be on earth for far longer than Earth has yet existed, and secondly, that this creates the imperative that if humanity is to survive, it must leave Earth. The latter is a view also held by techno-billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who already believe that the Earth will soon become unliveable for humans and rather than attempt to salvage it, we must jump ship. The point they appear to miss is that it requires significantly more innovation and risk to attempt a mass migration to another planet than it would to restore the climate and biodiversity of Earth itself, irrespective of any moral argument made.

It is obvious that this view, purported by Fogg, Musk and even otherwise sound-of-mind scientists such as the late Stephen Hawking, is clearly anthropocentric, because a first consideration, if this were to be the case, is “what happens to the animals?”. It is inherently defeatist. However, one can concede that it is mildly misanthropic to simply accept the extinction of humanity in this case – therefore in this (unlikely) scenario, many would likely agree that creating human habitats outside of earth, regardless of what that does to whatever exists out there, is the only morally correct choice.

However, this premise is not applicable to the more urgent questions we face today. Current space exploration would suggest that an attempt to go to Mars could be achieved within the next century. This is a hugely different timescale to the one Fogg uses to contextualise his article – the main thing which, the author believes divorces the arguments from any real-time, relevant discussion.

And as such, it is useful to instead think of how space ethics can be applied to choices being made today. Jack Reid (2022) describes the innovation and societal backing required for a meaningful stab at space mining as a “moral equivalent of war”, something which stands to demonstrate the effect of such an effort on a nation. The reasoning is as follows: war brings a sense of patriotism to a nation, bringing people together for a common cause. In this way, the gargantuan effort required to begin a mining operation in space would do the same, and in this way have a similar effect on society to war. War does, arguably, bring about economic benefit to the winning countries at huge human cost. The repeated destruction of civilian zones also provides mandate and incentive to redevelop, and in doing so boosts also the economy of the losing party. The idea of a moral equivalent to war supposes that the same results can be achieved through alternative, and ideally less destructive means. This was seen in the space race and its eventual resolution – both parties, formerly rivals in tense nuclear conflict, invested significant sums into a mutually beneficial programme.

It would go without saying that generally, investment into space mining is preferable to investment into weapons of mass destruction that result in huge casualties to nature when applied. But one cannot help but notice that both forms are destructive: destruction to create wealth. Wealth that, by and large, would not benefit a society besides the few with shares in a company, if the effects of “trickle-down economics” are anything to go by. Were such an experiment to happen today, it has been made quite clear that it would be done by private companies, to make profit: a rather different scene to the state-run operation of NASA and its space race in the 1960s. Overlining it all, of course, is the titular message – if something is morally equivalent to war, it may well be best avoided, irrespective of the silver linings that may or may not come in the aftermath.

This brings the conversation quite tidily into the territory of personal risk. Assuming now that it may be permissible to settle on another planet, is it ever okay to send astronauts on a one-way trip, with immense uncertainty about what conditions they will meet once they arrive? A person may consent to this, but the farthest one could go with respect to informed consent is consent to informed uncertainty. Someone can go on the trip (literally) of a lifetime, with company, with full knowledge that they may die. This issue is partially resolved by way of human agency and understanding, something we believe to be unique to our species.

A person may consent to this, but the farthest one could go with respect to informed consent is consent to informed uncertainty.

The latter point is relevant because prior to manned missions to space, animals were sent up in rockets. Before cosmetics or pharmaceuticals are approved for human use, a large proportion of them are first tested on animals. There is clearly a pattern. But as was mentioned, an animal cannot consent. Given the nature of a one-way trip, the main reason that animals are used in the first place, which is to see how the conditions affect them, becomes a non-point as it is not applicable when the animal may never come back. In this picture of space ethics, then, it is quite immediate that any mission to space, especially one where the vehicle (and hence its inhabitants) has a strong likelihood of losing contact with earth, must skip this all-too-common experimental step. If anything, testing such a trip on an animal would be a waste of resources, because this ability to consent is quite unique to humans. This can be interpreted using an anthropocentric argument, through means of our agency, but in equal measure can be used as justification for a preservationist approach.

How so? Animals cannot consent. Even humans, with the highest capacity to consent, cannot give fully informed consent. Hence, one could argue, there is no moral backing to give someone such risk, and therefore the best thing to do is to stay put. Perhaps one can dream of a utopia where all the planets are green and thriving, but space as we know it is a harsh, radioactive and arid place. Earth is more likely to become like Mars than Mars is to become like Earth, with or without human intervention. Hence, one could consider this ethics question closed. However, it is clear from history that people are likely to attempt something of this sort irrespective of the logical assessments that prohibit it.

So suppose that some lucky few do decide to go ahead, to jump ship. What if we find a planet, adaptable enough to our needs? If uninhabited, the answer may be simple: adapt it. Terraform it, make it perfect for settlers, a new Earth. Earth reborn,  Earth uncorrupted, a second chance, a new Eden. A new Eden thousands of light years away, generations away, so far into the future that by the time humans arrive all life may well be dead. But on the small chance that it is not: this is space colonisation. There are numerous flaws with this approach, if one holds anything other than an anthropocentrist mindset. Humans are limited by our senses and by our knowledge. It is not a stretch to suggest that we are highly unlikely to understand the complexities of an entirely new planet, with life that evolved independently from our own. Who are we to decide what classifies as sentience? Humans have inhabited Earth for tens of thousands of years, but have only just found suggestions that plant life can communicate via something resembling language.

…children should not pay the price for the actions of their parents.

As science fiction has explored time and time again, one can never predict what may happen once humans disturb a habitat they do not understand. It is a shining example of colonial hubris, as we have already seen on Earth itself. On a planet generations away from Earth, there is no turning back, which adds another layer of moral ambiguity to the already messy situation. A whole society of settlers are at risk, including the children of those who dared to take the leap. And their children, and their children: that is how long it takes to get to anywhere in space. A liberal society is founded upon the idea that children should not pay the price for the actions of their parents. In pursuing this trip, that principle is abandoned in its entirety. These children would bear the mark of the original sin of their grandparent’s grandparents in a way that is impossible to replicate on Earth, irrespective of the number of spaceship metaphors one can apply to life on Earth as it stands. Or kneels.

So it is prudent to ask: “Can we really afford to turn our attention away from home?” Dreams of space exploration and mining can seem very much like escapism, and the idea that humans as a species could find a home elsewhere is deeply flawed. There is no possibility for equity, we cannot transport an entire population, and for the reasons discussed above perhaps even if we could, we should not. This point alone is enough to stay any serious attempts of mass migration. It is likely that in such an event we would like also to bring animals with us, but they cannot consent to come into space! Science fiction likes to fantasize about a Noah’s Ark scenario: but who, in this situation, would play God? If a select (elite) group of people risk themselves for greener pastures, they at least have hope – and have knowingly damned the rest of us.